Jamini Roy (1887-1972) ‘Santhal drummers’

Dealing with the legacy

Artist and empire: facing Britain’s imperial past Tate Britain, Millbank, London SW1; ends April 10

Now that the British empire is gone, what do we do with the remains, the legacy of monuments? This has become a live issue of late, with the focus on the statues of Cecil Rhodes in Oxford and slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol. Meanwhile, Artist and empire at Tate Britain exhibits many other examples of art from the empire period. This invites the query: do we still need to deal with all that - the celebration of an empire which the rest of the world has long since learnt to condemn?

The exhibition provides a kind of narrative in covering art from and about the empire over the centuries. It begins with ‘Mapping and marking’ - portraits of the early explorers and pirates, Drake and Hawkins, and showing maps of the Americas and Caribbean. In the next room, ‘Trophies of empire’, we find records of the new flora and fauna the Europeans found. Next, the inevitable large history paintings of ‘Imperial heroes’, followed by ‘Power dressing’, with white administrators adopting local costume. Then we come to portraits of the native people themselves in ‘Face to face’. Finally we arrive at the post-1900 era and works that came out of the empire after it began to disappear, as well as recent responses to its legacy.

One way of dismissing the show has been to see it as just a dusty collection of waxworks of the past with little relevance to the modern UK - an imperial “junk shop”, as TheObserver called it, with the exhibits as mere “evidence, instance or historic document”, like Pharaoh heads or Spanish paintings of court dwarfs (December 6 2015).

One thing that saves the show from being just a pageant of glories or infamies is that the curators have provided informative labelling. Exhibition labels can, of course, test the visitor’s patience. However, in this show the accompanying text tells you the artist, date and title, but then adds a few facts which extend your attention rather than swamping it. For example, there are some small paintings from India which look as if they came from a Mughal court, but turn out to be have been commissioned by the East India Company. What is more, the deep dark green of the lawn in the pictures - hints of an English park - turn out to have been explicitly requested too. Queen Victoria seemed to have done her own share of commissioning, requesting a picture or three of foreign subjects. This makes one wonder how this affected the way the artist depicted the native sitters.

As the show is called Artist and empire,we need not think of the works of art as just evidence of events, but rather of how the artists related to the subjects. A picture by Rembrandt is Rembrandt’s vision, but all artists are historical beings and their works can tell us much about the general attitudes of the times, as well as contemporary artistic approaches and traditions. For example, in a somewhat clumsy sketch done by a British traveller inside an African hut, a woman lies semi-naked with her hands posed behind her head, stretched out like a Goya nude.

Empire pictures, especially of soldiers and ‘imperial heroes’, were for popular consumption too, not just patrons. Some sold very well as postcards and prints. Readers may even be familiar with a few, such as ‘The death of General Wolfe’ or ‘General Gordon’s last stand’ (1885). No-one is now taken in by these as photographic presentations. In fact, in a video produced for the exhibition, Oxford’s Zareer Masani talks about the iconography of the Wolfe picture, how the general is laid out like a figure of Christ taken from the cross. The label next to the painting tells us that the native Canadian in the painting, shown pensively watching the hero’s demise, was a fiction. Wherever Wolfe died, it was not alongside a red man.

However, popular depictions of other ranks reminded this viewer of something more recent than other 19th century history paintings. Here are several large compositions showing a tight knot of British troops standing resolute against attack by Zulus, “Matabele” (Ndebele) or Afghans. They are the outnumbered squaddies, resolute in defending whatever a spectator considers worth defending about the British empire. In another big picture, a bulky Britannia is about to plunge a sword into a huge tiger, representing rebellion in India.

Sure, we no longer believe in such rhetoric. Rebels are not tigers and Latin symbols no longer exercise retribution towards them (‘Retribution’ is the title of the picture, which is a reference to the contemporary Cawnpore rebellion). But the imagery of British soldiers, far from home, defending themselves against local violence is not some dusty relic. What else are the many accounts of events in Helmand province and Iraq? Such sympathy for the troops abroad is an abiding theme of hegemonic persuasion in the press and other media supporting interventions abroad.

Us and them

In another picture by 19th century favourite Henry Nelson O’Neil, ‘Eastward ho!’ (1857), women and children take leave of a ship, while soldiers clasp hands with them for one last time before the departure. In an accompanying picture, ‘Home again’ (1858), servicemen descend an almost vertical gangplank into the arms of their relatives. Some of the soldiers are wounded; some have beards marking long service. Here are images of a Victorian crowd - a busy crush in which chance of affection is fleeting; moving pieces that, by admitting the pain of separation and the wounds sustained, could suggest there might be some possible protest that the wars involved are unnecessary and unjust. Hegemony means not domination by exclusive ideas, but gaining consent and authority through building a combination of interests. All politicians and propagandists must speak to the concerns of audiences - their dreams and wishes - in terms of community, solidarity and heroism.

Here at the Tate we see that empire has always been promoted through appeal to sympathy with ‘our own’, as against ‘them out there’ - the irony being that this sense of disturbed peace is dependent on the spectator’s sense of security in belonging to a particular national family, however divided. Even if the culture has now broken with a specific rhetoric of image-making - classical symbols, a Christ-like general - this does not mean that the same appeals are not made. Was there ever a time when Brits, at home or abroad, were not portraying themselves as under siege from a sea of troublesome others?

In some parts of the show the curators may have been influenced by the academic turn in discussing ‘the other’, using concepts like hybridity and creolisation. In particular, the other has become a major concern for cultural studies. The trend though has been away from binary conceptions of us and them, with a lot more emphasis on hybridity and the mixed, the creole, the nature of identity and foreign encounters. In ‘Colonel Mordaunt’s cock match’ by Johan Zoffany (1784-86), East India Company men and Indians gather to proceed with a cockerel fight, in which there are no obvious superiors and no-one is giving or receiving orders. Apart from the different costumes, they could all belong to the same sports association.

In cultural studies the theorists have rejected what they argue is an outmoded national-liberationist perspective of freeing the natives to be ‘themselves’ without the colonial power. These ‘post-colonial’ critics - Homi Bhabha, Gayatri Spivak, Paul Gilroy, etc - focused on the mixture and diversity of identity that existed before and after decolonisation and latterly in the context of immigration and neocolonialism. These critics championed diversity as an analytical tool and as an aim: we must recognise pluralism as the basis for equality.

But in the Tate show we find colonial mixtures that are not promoting equality. William Fielding poses in a Van Dyck of 1635 in his specially made silk pyjamas. He is learning from the east no doubt, but what is he demonstrating here? An interest in new cultures and their transcendence by ‘mixing’, or his consumption of rich materials (sugar, tea and other commodities being the product of relationships far from equal and benign, from plantations, for example)? As John Hutnyk put it, “Pluralism on the basis of the current distribution would only be to confirm hierarchy, never its undoing.” The supposed festival of diverse and mixed national cultures can hide “‘obdurate’ questions of politics and histories of inequality, thereby occluding the legacy of colonialism understood from the viewpoint of the colonised” and ignoring “the experiences of poverty, dependency, subalterneity that persist well beyond the achievement of national independence” (Ethnic and Racial Studies January 2005).

Reggae styles in music and ethnic restaurants on the high street do not mean that the divisions of the world have been overcome - indeed they may even have got worse with moribund capitalism’s reluctance to invest in the places these first came from. The democratic ideal that all can mix (and have mixed) risks denial of the ways in which they cannot (and could not) mix and are still unequal.

At the Tate in ‘Power dressing’ we have more images shaped by the colonialist eye. For example, a photo of a Maharaja which, as the label tells us, underwent retouching that left his “beard exaggerated”. However, not all the images go this way. A photograph by Jonathan Adagogo Green reveals the Oba of Benin sitting, his feet shackled, looking resentfully into the camera lens, while guarded by three African soldiers. Enough complexity here to counter any accusation that the curators are just giving us, for better or worse, pin-ups of Victorian empire-builders. There are also darkened wood statuettes from 1911 by a Yoruba artist, of one elongated figure in uniform with an accordion and another in a pith helmet. The accompanying label lapses in telling us what to think, warning us not to take these caricatures of ‘gods’ as “sardonic”.

Also far from fawning in my opinion is a portrait, in the ‘Power dressing’ room, by the celebrated painter, John Singer-Sargent, of Sir Frank Swettenham, Resident General of the Malay States (British Malaysia). Here displayed is a commanding Englishman leaning against what looks like a golden carpet hung over a chair. He is looking down on the spectator, as if daring us to find him a fraudster and bigot. It is from 1904, when the empire was already being challenged by anti-imperialists at home and rival nations abroad. Sargent’s attitude can indeed be taken as a snobbish metropolitan disregard of the chancers who sustained the UK’s position in the world, those hard-grafting guards and adventurers of whom Kipling sung the praises. Nonetheless Swettenham is no self-sacrificing hero; he is revelling in his position and rubs up against imperial booty to prove it.

There are plenty of replies to the official version appearing throughout the gallery. A Hausa artist from Nigeria had painted a number of figures on a piece of light-coloured leather (1940). Like a non-narrative comic strip it shows white men in sun hats riding horses, with black men standing or walking near or behind them. The status difference is obvious.

The exhibition features photographic work by Hew Locke. There are two photo-collages of certain prominent figures in stone: one photo of the Bristol slave trader, Edward Colston; the other of philosopher Edmund Burke. They are shown covered, in fact dripping, with gold chains and gems of various kinds. So much so that the figures themselves are obscured under the evidence of loot.

Drawing the line

Another thoughtful use of empire material is the series of four panels entitled ‘Lay back, keep quiet and think of what made Britain so great’ (1986) by Sonia Boyce. Each panel contains a ground of wallpaper, a pattern especially admired by Queen Victoria, three of them with cut-out sections in the shape of a cross, showing different pencilled images of respectively South Africa, India and Australia - the last panel features a young black woman, who may well be the artist.

Is this to be disregarded as simple condemnation of the past, about which we no longer need to bother? Or does it make the very subject of the work the layers of response to such a theme and how we react to these images being brought together? What are the sketches inside the cross shapes worth? Are they more clichéd views of those places? What is our relation to the woman in the last panel? Is she English or British? (Boyce herself is described online as an English artist.) What is British? Why did Queen Victoria like that wallpaper?

While there are more immediate issues art could confront today, a challenge to the given story of the past is part of the overall challenge to hegemony. Too many people still ask, ‘Are these countries any better off now without British rule?’ - implying that we have to choose between colonialism and neocolonialism. Meanwhile, liberals who dismiss themes of the old empire, racism, nation, etc underestimate their continuing mobilising power. But let us not overestimate it.

Our era is one where people are drawing the line in many areas against ruling class arrogance, including through public-sector strikes and the struggle for democracy in the Labour Party. What is offensive about statues like that of Rhodes in Oxford is not the sculpture itself, but its position, its acceptance in a public place. Doing something about it would not be denying history, but making a choice about our view of the past. We have no need to remove or demolish everything, but equally there is no reason to leave everything as it was - especially when such a work’s positioning symbolises mute public acceptance.

If the struggle over Rhodes and other questions of cultural legacy is a debate about how we see the past and its relevance to the present, it is not the only thing to challenge. Yet all the replies to this that appeal to patriotic nostalgia will not obscure the growing public perception that the money is going to the few rather than the many.

At the Tate, I would have preferred a few more utility objects - cups and porcelain, for example; evidence of the tea, sugar and silk trade. But then I no longer observe the demarcation between beaux arts and design, images on walls and used things. Nevertheless, this show is rich in material. It not only raises questions about what we remember or need to remember, but about how art is shaped and the class relations of the creole culture is created. And about what visions of the world we may still carry with us after the British have left.

Mike Belbin